Posted 5/04/97


Regarding several comments I have received about my recent comments about Columbus, Ohio, I have a news clipping to share. Everyone ready?

COLUMBUS, Ohio, April 23 (UPI) - An Ohio white supremacist - who
formerly was a lieutenant in the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations - and who
received a mail-order shipment of the bubonic plague germ from a
Maryland laboratory pleaded guilty in Columbus federal court to one
count of wire fraud.

Larry Wayne Harris, 46, was sentenced to 18 months' probation and
ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

Harris' lawyer, George Luther, told the Columbus Dispatch his client
"intended no ill will. He did not intend to harm anyone."

Harris said he previously belonged to the Christian Identity Church,
a group that believes Jews are Satan's children and African-Americans
and other minorities are mud people.

BTW, if anyone feels that I am being unfair to Columbus by implying that the above is illustrative of the social and political climate there, I can only say that I lived in Columbus for ten years and I know wherof I imply. The place is infested with fascist nutters. Next topic.

Once again, these columns lack the funny drawings you have come to expect.
C'est la vie.
Go ahead, say it.

Look, gang, I came back to town and discovered that I was going to be writing a 500-word weekly newspaper column (entirely separate from the one you see here) for a major metropolitan daily plus doing another edition of my book. (And I am still not making enough to live on -- ain't life grand?) I'm afraid that the graphics are going to have to wait until I have a little more time than I do at the moment. But to make up for it, I'm going to post twice the usual number of columns this time. I am nice guy, yes?

Several people have written to say that my front page could use some work -- that it is cluttered and confusing. You are absolutely right, and I plan to do something about it. Real soon now.

Bespoke too soon

Dear Word Detective: Suddenly I am seeing the word "bespoke" everywhere I turn. Magazines are running articles gushing over some actor's "bespoke boots" and singing the praises of "bespoke wedding gowns." Everything is suddenly "bespoke." What does this mean, and where did it come from? -- K. Mercurio, New York City.

It means that the Great Media Herd is on the move again, that's what it means. Most people don't know this, but after the Great Plains buffalo was hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century, worried conservationists began to search for a species to replace the beleaguered behemoths. After extensive testing, the Department of the Metaphors settled on magazine writers as replacements for the buffalo, noting their docility, lack of imagination and, most importantly, their allegiance to the herd mentality.

The only problem with magazine writers as a species is that they are extremely suggestible -- to paraphrase a metaphor, it's strictly magazine writer see, magazine writer write, over and over and over again. Once a particular trendy word has seized the tiny collective mind of the herd, you can rest assured that you'll be seeing that word, be it "meme" or "trope" or "gamin" or "waif" or "soigne," from now 'til next Christmas in every imaginable context. In other words, brace yourself, because the herd has just begun to "bespoke."

Not that there's anything wrong with "bespoke," you understand. It's just the past participle of the verb "bespeak," which means "to arrange" or "to order." Something that is "bespoke" has been made to order, as opposed to being purchased ready-made. It's a slightly archaic term, heard until recently almost exclusively in British English.

"Bespoke" lately seems to have caught the fancy of people for whom just saying "custom-made" does not provide the "frisson" (1995's buzz word, by the way) it once did. The wealthy (and the journalists who watch them) are as fickle (and silly) in their choice of trendy words as they are in other matters of fashion -- what else explains all those Range Rovers in Beverly Hills? Of course, now that every magazine reader in Des Moines is being bombarded with "bespoke," Mr. and Mrs. Gotrox are going to need a new word.


Manger Management 101

Dear Word Detective: I was talking with a coworker the other day when I described the actions of our beloved employer as that of a dog in a manger. He asked me what that meant and I told him that I thought it meant that though the dog has no real use for the manger, he will guard it to prevent others from using it. Hence, though the boss has no real use for an item at the office, he is keeping others from using it, just because he can. So, is my boss a dog in a manger, or what? -- Zuzu North, via the Internet.

First of all, I'd like to say at the outset that I love dogs. I say hello to dogs on the street, and often point out especially snazzy dogs to my wife. She, in turn, has theorized that I may actually be a dog myself, a frivolous accusation based solely on my tendency to growl at strangers and one or two car-chasing incidents several years ago. In any case, nothing that follows should be taken too literally. No dog I know would ever act this way.

The phrase "dog in the manger" comes from one of Aesop's fables, which is short enough to repeat here in full. (A "manger," incidentally, is the place in a stable where food for oxen and cows is kept, and comes from the Latin word "mangere" -- "to eat.") Aesop wrote:

A dog lay in a manger, and by his growling and snapping prevented the oxen from eating the hay which had been placed for them. "What a selfish dog!" said one of them to his companions, "He cannot eat the hay himself, and yet refuses to allow those to eat who can."

This fable sums up the behavior of certain humans so well that "dog in the manger" has been used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, "A churlish person who will neither use something himself nor let another use it" since the 16th century.

You'll have to be the one to decide whether "dog in the manger" accurately describes your boss, but I'd advise against discussing the question any further at your workplace. Bosses have excellent hearing, and they bite.

The Epicene Epic

Dear Word Detective: I am the editor of a healthcare magazine. Often I come across a phrase such as "Every doctor should have HIS own pager." Short of reconstructing such sentences to read "All doctors should have their own pagers," what would you do? -- Theresa Falzone, via the Internet.

Well, I'd take two aspirin and stop making "health care" into one word, that's what I'd do. Seriously, though, you may not realize it (judging by the innocent manner in which you pose the question), but you have stepped smack into the middle of one of the hairiest (and hoariest) debates among English-language grammarians. The question of "his/her/their/him/her/them," also known as the "genderless" or "epicene" pronoun debate, has been raging for decades and shows no sign of abating in the near future.

The whole ruckus boils down to one devilishly simple question: what pronoun should one use when the noun referred to ("doctor" in your example) could be either male or female? The "Old School" solution was to use a universal "him" or "his" in this situation, but one need not be a militant feminist to find this practice exclusionary and unsatisfactory. If I had a small daughter, I would not want her reading books full of that sort of "hims."

Generations of both professional and amateur grammarians have doggedly attempted to settle the question of gender and pronouns, so far with little success. Sprinkling "him/her" and "his/her" through every paragraph is awkward and annoying and, consequently, is favored as a solution only by awkward and annoying writers. There have been hundreds of attempts to invent new, gender-free pronouns along the lines of "hie," "hir," "shim" and similar bizarre concoctions. None of these, thank heavens, has caught on with the general public, and should you find yourself reading a book which depends on such inventions, you'd be well-advised to toss it out the nearest window.

So what, you ask, is my solution? Tune in next time, when I'll settle this question once and for all. Or maybe not.

Last time out, we started to consider the problem of the epicene (or "gender-free") pronoun. If you're still reading after that first sentence, you must either really like this column or be trapped in a stuck elevator with nothing else to read. Well, keep reading, because there's a good chance that your blood pressure is about to rise dramatically.

To cut to the chase, the reader's question that started all this was: what do you use instead of "his" in sentences such as "Every doctor should have his own pager," when the doctor may well not be a "him"? The solution, in my view, is what 99 percent of all English-speakers already quite naturally use when faced with this situation in real life -- "their" (and "them" and "they," as the context requires). "Every doctor should have their own pager" is correct.

Now, before you all crank up your typewriters and e-mail programs to let me know what a treasonous barbarian I have revealed myself to be, consider three points. First, the use of the normally plural "their" to refer to a singular noun ("doctor" in this case) was common in English until the late 18th century. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope, Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw, among other literary luminaries, all used this construction. It was only when self-appointed Victorian grammar reformers decided very late in the game that English should be modeled on the structure of classical Latin that the "singular their" was banned.

Secondly, as explained by linguist Steven Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct" (HarperCollins, 1994), "doctor" and "their" in our sample sentence aren't really an antecedent noun and its pronoun -- they are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable," respectively, and don't have to agree in number. Pinker's explanation of the difference is lucid, fascinating, and much too long to go into here, so buy go the book. Yes, it's in paperback.

Lastly, there simply is no other solution acceptable to the vast numbers of people who actually speak the English language. The re-emergence of this use of "their" is natural, logical, and confuses no one. It is not sloppiness and it is not ignorance. It is a positive example of our language evolving to encompass a new social awareness, in this case the somewhat belated recognition that not everyone enjoys being referred to as "him." The defense rests.


Dear Evan: I enjoyed reading your article on the phrase "for all intensive purposes." Since this is a mondegreen, is it also a malaprop? If not, what are the differences? -- Warren Donowho, via the Internet.

Chances are good that anyone who hasn't been reading this column religiously (shame on you!) is a bit confused by your question, so allow me to recap the story thus far as briefly as possible. A reader wrote in to ask whether a common phrase was, in fact, "for all intensive purposes." It wasn't, of course -- the proper phrase is "for all intents and purposes." This brought up the subject of "mondegreens," or amusing mishearings of popular phrases and especially song lyrics. The word "mondegreen" is itself a mondegreen, coined by writer Sylvia Wright upon her mishearing of the poem stanza "They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green" as "and Lady Mondegreen."

"Malapropisms" are quite a different kettle of fish. Malapropisms take their name from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Sheridan's classic 1775 play "The Rivals." Mrs. Malaprop's name is derived from the French for "inappropriate" (mal a propos), and nearly every utterance she makes in the course of the play bears out that legacy. In her affected attempts to sound refined and cultured by using "sophisticated words" she doesn't understand, Mrs. Malaprop invariably mangles them -- a reference to "allegories" on the banks of the Nile River being a tame example.

Malapropisms are far from extinct, as anyone who watches television knows, and if I had a dime for every blow-dried twit who I've heard solemnly explain that the study of word origins is called "entomology," I'd be writing this column from the Riviera. I would say, however, that "for all intensive purposes" is not a malapropism, since the reader who sent it in was not trying to be pretentious in using the phrase. Ultimately, it's all a question of attitude.


Dear Evan: I'm hoping you can answer this one for me. A friend and I were discussing the meaning of the term "Between a rock and a hard place," and he said that he had heard that the phrase was originally "Between a rock and a hard plate." He said that the "plate" was a steel plate attached to the bow of sailing ships to prevent damage in case the ship hit a rock. Thus the worst place to find oneself would be between the rock and this plate. Is my friend correct? -- M. M., New York, NY.

You friend certainly has come up with an interesting theory, although I don't think I'd choose him for a sailing companion. "In case the ship hit a rock" is a bit too cavalier an approach to nautical safety for my taste.

I'm not an expert on the history of sailing, but I have never heard of such plates, though I could be wrong. It seems to me that the idea presumes that the ship would hit the rocks bow-first, which is hardly inevitable. In any case, the phrase "Between a rock and a hard place," meaning to be in a difficult position or to be faced with a choice between two evils, does not come from any such contraption.

The phrase is nautical in origin, however, so your friend was on the right track. "Between a rock and a hard place" is a modern, non-literary variation on the much older "Between Scylla and Charybdis." Homer, in "The Odyssey" (written about 850 B.C.), describes a perilously narrow sea passage his hero must navigate between Scylla, a terrifying monster, and Charybdis, a massive whirlpool. From Homer's time up until fairly recently, "Between Scylla and Charybdis" was a common metaphor for a perilous or difficult situation. With classical studies somewhat in eclipse these days (putting it mildly), the less demanding "Between a rock and a hard place" is far more commonly heard.

An odd little word, or two

Dear Evan: With all this cloning business going on, I have a question. Where does the word "clone" come from? -- Zoodc, via the Internet.

Before we start, I'd like to take a moment to encourage readers who write me via the Internet to sign their complete names to their questions, rather than their "screen names" or e-mail addresses. I like to conjure up a mental image of my readers as I write my answer, and it's a bit difficult to picture a "zoodc." Right now, I'm imagining someone writing to me from within the Washington, D.C., zoo, which is a bit disturbing, given the subject matter.

Well, with all this cloning business going on, I, too, have a lot of questions, some of which I probably shouldn't ask. I understand that scientists, having cloned a sheep, have now moved on to cloning monkeys. I could ask why they skipped lawyers, but I won't. I do, however, believe that I have discerned a pattern in these dubious endeavors, a method to the madness, which I will now share with you. Think for a moment. What do you get when you cross a sheep with a monkey? That's right -- a TV news anchorperson! They are breeding Rathers and Brokaws and Jenningses in those labs, and they must be stopped.

Meanwhile, back at your question, "clone" is an odd little word, but its origin is actually very straightforward and logical. It comes from the Greek word "klon," meaning "twig," and the first use of the word was in the field of botany in the early 20th century, to describe the process of growing one plant from a cutting or graft from another. Although "clone" soon came to be applied to microorganisms as well as plants, the first use of "clone" to mean an entire person or animal produced from a single parent was fairly recent, dating to 1970. One of the first figurative, non-scientific uses of "clone" was in 1979 to describe Elvis impersonators. Soon, I suppose, we'll be reckoning with the real thing.

Here Kitty, Kitty

Dear Evan: When my parents recently came to visit me in my somewhat cramped New York City apartment, I overheard my father say that there was "not enough room to swing a cat". I'll admit that technically he may have been right, but it seems like a rather brutal metaphor. Where did it come from? -- B. Smith, NY, NY

Y'know, I'm getting a little tired of out-of-towners expressing shock at the size of the average New York City apartment. We happen to like them this way, thank you very much. There are definite advantages to having everything you own in one tiny, dark room. You never have to stand up to get something out of the refrigerator, for one thing, and many apartments actually have bathtubs in the kitchen, which is very convenient if your dinner guests are about to arrive and you're still cooking. If you lived in New York City, that last point would make perfect sense to you. Scary, isn't it?

There are two theories about "not enough room to swing a cat," neither of them very cheerful. One is that the phrase refers to the "cat o'nine tails," a nine-thonged whip used in the days of square-rigged ships to discipline unruly sailors. This "cat" got its name from the fact that the welts it left on a sailor's back looked like enormous cat scratches. Most such whippings took place on the open deck, both as an example to the rest of the crew and because in the cramped quarters belowdecks there was "not enough room to swing a cat."

The other, less cat-friendly theory is that the phrase refers to literally swinging a cat around by its tail. This version seems to have quite a bit more evidence in its favor, the phrase having come into use in the mid-17th century and being used with clear reference to actual cats ever since, including in Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield."

Set 'em up

Dear Word Detective: I teach Latin and a regular feature of my class is English word study. When possible, I try to liven up discussions on word stems, etc., with stories. Today, as we were reading a story (in Latin) about Europa and the bull (Jupiter), I remembered the expression "a cock and bull story." After the translation was finished, I asked the class if they knew the expression, and they didn't, so I explained it to them and got a few lively responses in turn. One student raised a clever question -- he wanted to know whether the Cock pub was connected with the origin of the word "cocktail." I said that I doubted it, but would try to find out. I checked a couple of dictionaries in the library -- to no avail. Can you help? -- Mary Ann Eiler, via the Internet.

Perhaps. But first, a brief aside. I infer from your narrative that you told your students that "cock and bull story," meaning a preposterous tale, has something to do with a pub named "The Cock," or perhaps "The Cock and Bull." About the best that can be said for that story is that it is not absolutely impossible. Far more likely, however, is that "cock and bull" refers to the tradition of populating parables with talking animals -- thus, a "cock and bull story" would be a tale as ludicrous as one of Aesop's fables.

As to the origin of "cocktail," I'd have been very surprised had you found a definitive answer in the library, because there isn't one. There so many unproven theories, however, that one of them almost must be true, although H.L. Mencken judged them all "fishy."

Leaving aside the theories that link the word to the West African word "kaketal" (scorpion, because of its "sting"), or depend on Aztec princesses named "Xoctil," or involve implausible stories of drinks stirred with rooster tails, we are left with my favorite, which has the virtue of making sense. A "cocktailed horse" is one whose tail has been bobbed, giving it a jaunty and flamboyant look. It seems reasonable that the "cocktail" took its name from the drink's alcoholic wallop, sufficient to "cock the tail" (or "knock the socks off") of an unwary patron.

Mushy stuff

Dear Evan: I would like to know the origin of the word "Iditarod." I understand that the word for road in Latin is "iter," hence my confusion. Hope you can help. -- Sally Lennard, via the Internet.

Marcel Proust I'm not (in case you were wondering, what with my languid gaze, dissolute habits and all), but your question unleashed a veritable torrent of reminiscences for me. I remembered Eskie, the Alaskan Husky that a friend of my parents had bestowed on our suburban family when I was young. I remembered trying to get Eskie to pull a toboggan loaded with my friends, all of us shouting "Mush! Mush!" with absolutely no effect. And then I remembered that Michael Raynor, a faithful reader, has been asking me to explain the origins of "mush" for the past two years. So now I have two questions to answer.

Unfortunately, "Iditarod," the name of an annual dogsled race in Alaska, has yet to make it into any dictionary I own. However, since I am writing this column just as this year's Iditarod gets started, I decided to do some poking around the World Wide Web in search of an answer to your question. According to one Web site I found, "Iditarod" comes from the Native Alaskan word "hidehod," which means "distant or distant place." Sounds good to me.

As to "mush," the command supposedly used to get the dogs to actually pull the sled (yeah, right), the Oxford English Dictionary maintains that it comes from the French "marchez," the imperative form of "marcher," to advance. Maybe my dog Eskie flunked French. Incidentally, although travel by dogsled is indeed known as "mushing" up in Alaska, I've also learned that most sled drivers do not actually say "mush" to the dogs. They say "hike" to get the dogs going, "gee" for a right turn, "haw" for a left, and "easy" to stop. We learn something new every day, don't we? I think I'm gonna try this method on the next New York City cab driver I encounter.


Nibs nabbed

Dear Mr. Morris: My father is curious about where the term "his nibs" came from. He has often said "his nibs" when referring to a friend or one of my brothers. I told him about your column and promised to write. I hope you can help. -- Sandra Sheldon, Pittsburgh, PA.

Tell your father that he's lucky I have a persistent streak. The Oxford English Dictionary, usually the definitive word on origins, defines "his nibs" as "an employer, a superior; a self-important person." But as to the genesis of the phrase, the OED closed the door politely but firmly with the comment "origin obscure." Undeterred, I decided to forge on in my quest -- after all, some of my best friends have obscure origins.

Another hour or two among my trusty and dusty reference books produced not just the origin of "his nibs," but interesting connections to several other words as well. "His nibs" was a common slang phrase among English college students in the 19th century, usually a sarcastic reference to someone seen as aloof or stuck-up. Along with an earlier form "nabs," "nibs" was based on "nob," an alternate spelling of "knob" and an 18th century slang term for "head." The "head" in question was both literally the human head and "head man," or an important person.

"Nab" was also a slang term for "hat," and the verb "to nab" may be related to the same root, in the sense of "capturing the head" of someone. Some of the uncertainty about "nibs" and its relatives is due to their being filtered through 17th century thieves' cant, where meanings were often deliberately obscured to confuse the police.

Wale tale

Dear Evan: What can you tell me about "wales," as in "wide-wale corduroy"? Are these "wales" somehow related to Wales, the country? -- Tarara Boumdier, Brooklyn, NY.

As one whose ancestors came from "Wales, the country," I consider myself singularly qualified to answer your question. The answer is no -- there is no relation between Wales, the country, and "wales," the ridges characteristic of corduroy fabric. And after investigating the origin of fabric "wales," I'm glad there isn't, because thereby hangs a rather grisly tale.

The original sense of "wale" (in the Old English form "walu") was "the mark of a lash" -- the welt or stripe raised on flesh by whipping, a sense which survives today in the related form "weal." The English word "wale" eventually came to be applied to almost any sort of ridge, band or stripe, from stone fences to the strip of wood around the top of a boat's sides, now usually called the "gunwale" (pronounced "gunnel," by the way).

Speaking of corduroy, this humble fabric has some surprising origins of its own. The word "corduroy" is an Anglicization of the French phrase "corde du roi," or "cord (cloth) of the king." Corduroy cloth was originally developed as a durable material from which to fashion the hunting togs of French kings, the heavy ribbed cloth designed to withstand the rigors of the brush. The corduroy of the French royalty was a bit fancier than the stuff we wear today: just for starters, it was made of silk.

Meanwhile, back at "Wales, the country," that name comes from the Old English word "Wealas," meaning "foreigner." The name embodies a certain objectionable arrogance inasmuch as it was first applied to the native Celtic peoples of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, who were themselves invaders of the British Isles. The Welsh themselves call their country "Cymru."

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